The Soul and the Body

As I mentioned in a couple of recent posts, I am currently working my way through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. He has a lot of things to say about heaven, hell, the resurrection, the soul, the body, the kingdom of God, etc, all to bring a hopeful perspective about some of these greatly misunderstood concepts. And I agree whole heartedly with his thoughts.

In my last little excerpt from the book, I posted some general thoughts from Wright about heaven and eschatology. But just the other day I read some great insights about the resurrection, the body and the soul, so I thought I would put those up here as well. The passage is a bit long, but well worth reading.

The hope of resurrection underlies the whole of 1 Corinthians, not just chapter 15. But here Paul addresses it head-on as of central importance. Some in Corinth are denying the future resurrection, almost certainly on the normal pagan grounds that everyone knows dead people don’t rise again. In reply, Paul speaks, as we saw in the previous chapter, of Jesus as the firstfruits and of the great harvest still to come when all Jesus’s people are raised as he has been.

The whole chapter echoes and alludes to Genesis 1-3. It is a theology of new creation, not of the abandonment of creation. The heart of the chapter is an exposition of the two different types of bodies, the present one and the future one. This is where all sorts of problems have arisen.

Several popular translations, notably the Revised Standard Version and its offshoots, translate Paul’s key phrases as “a physical body” and “a spiritual body”. Simply in terms of the Greek words Paul uses, this cannot be correct. The technical arguments are overwhelming and conclusive. The contrast is between the present body, corruptible, decaying, and doomed to die, and the future body, incorruptible, undecaying, never to die again. The key adjectives, which are quoted endlessly in discussions of this topic, do not refer to a physical body and a nonphysical one, which is how people in our culture and bound to hear the words physical and spiritual.

The first word, psychikos, does not in any case mean anything like “physical” in our sense. For Greek speakers of Paul’s day, the psychē, from which the word derives, means the soul, not the body.

But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in-ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?” (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, “Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?” (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psychē (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation.

This is why, in a further phrase that became controversial as early as the mid-second century, Paul declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom. [1 Corinthians 15:50]” He doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. “Flesh and blood” is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we call nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.

This underlies the remarkable concluding verse of 1 Corinthians 15 [vs58], to which we shall return. For Paul, the bodily resurrection does not leave us saying, “So that’s all right; we shall go, at the last, to join Jesus in a nonbodily, Platonic heaven,” but, “So, then, since the person you are and the world God has made will be gloriously reaffirmed in God’s eventual future, you must be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we presently only guess. (italics his)

These are solid words about the body, the soul and the future resurrection in our renewed bodies. The goal is not a disembodied soul living in heaven up there. The goal in Christ is that we be given renewed bodies animated by the Spirit-breath-life of God living in a new earth that has been invaded fully and finally by the kingdom rule of God. That, my friends, provides great hope for the body of Christ. And, for some, it might just bring a surprising hope. But this is the biblical hope.

The Importance of the Resurrection

The Easter season is upon us, the time when we remember both the crucifixion of Christ for the sin of mankind and His resurrection from the grave. These two events wholly sum up what we could call the ‘first Christ event’, as we rightly expect Him to return a second time to complete that which He started. And, with Easter approaching, there is one truth that all Christians, from east and west, north and south, and everywhere else in between, should keep in mind.

Christ’s followers should be encouraged that the ultimate crux of Christianity lies not in the cross, though that was necessary and important, but rather in the resurrection. As Paul makes clear to the Corinthians:

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

When reading these words, one can see how Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection. Josh McDowell stated it this way:

‘I came to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is either one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon people, or it is the most important fact of history.’ (A Ready Defense)

It’s not that we disregard Christ’s atoning death on the cross for mankind. Such an act leads us to weep at times and shout at other times. But, in the bigger picture, the cross was a step towards something greater – the resurrection and ascension of the Son of God back to the right hand of the Father that He might now rule over of all things (Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:18-23).

Dr. Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), Royal Professor of Law at Harvard University in America, was declared in the mid-1800’s by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of America to be the greatest authority on legal evidences who ever lived. Interestingly, Greenleaf decided to turn his studies to the evidence concerning the resurrection of Christ. His findings were recorded in his book, ‘An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice.’

Yeah, they had long titles in those days. It wasn’t about short, snappy titles to make big bucks.

During his career, Greenleaf conducted an in depth examination of the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. Upon doing so, he concluded that, in any unbiased courtroom in the world, if the evidence for the resurrection of Christ were presented, it would be declared as an absolute historical fact. He also held that there is more evidence supporting the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than for just about any other event in history. Some conclude there is even more evidence for Christ’s resurrection than evidence that Julius Caesar ever existed. Pretty interesting!

And, of course, we must not forget the testimony of the Scriptures, this being the faithful, God-breathed Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is the Bible that has been recognised as an historically accurate account of the events it records. And it is in the Scripture that we read the testimony that Christ appeared to over 500 people during a period of 40 days. Check out the list below:

  • Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18)
  • Mary, mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 28:1, 9-10)
  • Two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32)
  • Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
  • Ten disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25)
  • Later eleven disciples in the upper room (John 20:26-31; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
  • Seven disciples fishing (John 21:1-23)
  • Eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • The disciples at the ascension (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:3-8)
  • More than 500 hundred followers (1 Corinthians 15:6)
  • James, brother of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7)
  • Paul (Acts 9:1-19; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8)

What we, as followers of Christ, stand on is truly solid ground. This was no hoax. It is the most important historical event in the history of mankind.

Yet, though we have all of this historical data, we still must be moved in our hearts by the Holy Spirit to receive this truth, the truth that changes our lives and makes us new creations. We must still accept this by faith. And, thus, this is the Easter message we believe:

The Son of God, who put on a body of flesh and gave His life at the cross to bring mankind back into relationship with the Father, was raised by the power of God and has ascended back to the Father to pour out His Holy Spirit and rule over all!

The resurrection has been the key, has been the truth and has been changing lives for nearly 2000 years. If Christ had not come out of that grave, then the incarnation (birth of Christ) and the cross would be deemed irrelevant. But, these events find even greater importance because Christ did walk out of the grave on the third day.

And so, this life-changing message of Easter has not lost one drop of its power, even after 2000 years. It is this Easter truth that the saints of past, present and future generations rest their faith in, a sure and solid truth. So, let us celebrate the power of the truth that Christ actually got up and walked out of the grave!